by Scott Benson

I guess my only question now is what’s next.

What do we get this week, from the Patriots?

Obviously, they won’t beat everybody 38-13. The Pats did an awful lot right last Sunday, but it would be unrealistic to think that will be the case every week from here. Only days before, at home with the Broncos, they had struggled badly. Even their wins over the Bills and the Jets left an incomplete aftertaste.

Still, their throttling of the Bengals last Sunday was the mark of a legitimate, hardnosed team. I didn’t expect it, yet it was so surprisingly good and thorough that I can understand the temptation to think they’ve quickly resolved whatever problems they’ve been having. The desire is for last week’s command performance to have a greater significance that resonates over the rest of the season.

Naturally, this week we’ll learn a little more about what last week really meant.

Will the Patriots handle a clearly floundering Miami team, as they should, and head in to the break with a snappy 4-1 record? Or will they get the win but leave it littered with red flags that will hang over the next two weeks?

Or God forbid, will they get hit by a bus and…..gasp……well, you know what. I can’t say it.

I’ll take anything that looks in the least little bit like last Sunday. If any momentum was started there in Cicinnati, it should carry through to a solid, well-managed win this Sunday, and two weeks of the team getting healthier and better acquainted.

A different outcome will only lead me to wonder even more – what’s next?

Believe it or not, the Patriots have already completed one-quarter of their season, and boast a solid 3-1 record. While the overall play hasn’t been perfect just yet, the record is nice. What are you most encouraged about so far, and what needs to be improved?

Greg: The running game. If they can stay healthy, it’ll carry them a long way. Or at least help to. I’ll include the offensive line in that with the backs. We’ve seen some of the best line play this year since I have been watching the team anyways. Its only 4 games, but if they keep it up it’ll be a tremendous asset. The biggest worry for me is the secondary. They’ve played okay most of the time, but still give up the long plays we saw last year and were uncharacteristic of the Super Bowl teams. If they can eliminate that, it’ll go a long way towards making the defense go from good to great.

Bruce: The defense has shown some signs of being very good. The secondary does need to show some improvement, as many of the points that the defense has given up has been on big plays downfield and poor tackling in the secondary. As the year goes on, I see that improving, leaving the Patriots with a really top notch defense that’s going to be tough at the end of the year. The tight ends haven’t been the pass catching dervishes that we thought they might be, but they’ve been effective in the passing and blocking game. The secondary seems to be to the weakest link at the moment, and they were pretty good against the Bengals. I’d like to see continued improvement there.

Scott: My ‘encouraged’ pick is something that may be a little obscure, but I love the way Patriots ball carriers have been lowering their shoulders and blasting the beejesus out of would-be tacklers this season. It seems like every Sunday someone – be it Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney, or last week, Daniel Graham – delivers a blow so powerful that it requires an immediate commercial break, so that some poor soul can be brought back to his senses. It just appeals to my crude Cro-Magnon instincts. How long before Rodney Harrison starts lobbying for a few carries, just for the opportunity to render someone horizontal? What needs to be improved? Everything else.

Some reporters are advocating the notion that the Patriots should bring in a veteran kicker to handle field goals while still allowing Stephen Gostkowski to still boom his kickoffs. Is this a good idea, or just more media crap de jour?

Bruce: There’s no doubt that I’d like to see him improve, but I don’t buy the argument that bringing someone else in is going to help his confidence…if anything it might do the opposite. As Aaron Schatz mentioned this week on, Gostkowski’s kickoffs are helping the team far more than his misses have hurt them, plus, the advantage in field position means it could be more likely that the team isn’t going to be in the position of needing a long range field goal at the end of the game.

Scott: Just leave him alone. I sincerely believe we’re lucky to have this guy. To me, there’s just something crushing about driving for a touchdown, then forcing the other offense to drive 80 yards to respond. These misses haven’t caused the Pats anything, so I recommend we forget them.

Greg: I wouldn’t say its crap. I suppose its a legitimate option and worth discussing. But I disagree with it. Gostkowski is a talented kicker. You just got to give him time. He’s 3-6 on kicks, Adam Vinatierri was 3 for his first 7 in the NFL. Give him time, he’s got the leg. He’ll get comfortable soon.

What’s up with the cornerbacks? Why is it that every year a few games into the season they start dropping like flies after the first frost? Is it something that can be quantified and worked on, or is it just dumb luck?

Scott: It cannot be bad luck. Bad luck is one or two instances, not multiple ones, every single season. Obviously, the size of the players in question could be a factor, but nothing is that easy. I think the Patriots have to take a hard look at every element of their program (such as conditioning and strength training, or even on-field techniques, as it relates to their secondary) to figure out why their defensive backs are so prone to injury. They cannot afford to have this situation every year.

Greg: I think its mostly dumb luck, but with a slight caveat. The Patriots have tended to have smaller corners throughout the Belichick years and that may contribute a bit to their tendancy to go down. But I think mostly its just been unfortunate circumstances.

Bruce: Hey – the smaller cornerback theory is as good as any out there right now in this town. I really have no idea here. Are they asked to do things that put them at more physical risk than other teams? I don’t think so. There HAS to be answer somewhere…doesn’t there? This is ridiculous. At least three years in a row now.

Last Sunday, we really got a sense of Daniel Graham’s value to the Patriots. His outstanding blocking skills were showcased, and he led the team (along with Doug Gabriel) in receptions, and on one occasion, added a physically punishing run-after-catch. It really seems that the Patriots would lose an important (and unsung) piece of their puzzle if Graham left as a free agent, as he can do next spring. Will he be back with the team next season?

Greg: I think he will be. I think he is really a tremendously underrated player in what he brings to the team. No, he won’t have the gaudy catch numbers. But he can catch. There really isn’t much in terms of statistics to quantify the really extraordinarily good blocking he brings to the tight end position. But I tend to doubt Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli aren’t aware of it or the value he brings. I think they’ll make this a top priority and will pay him top dollar. Its probably at least partially the reason they’ve left themselves cap room (along with signing Dan Koppen and more attractive free agents than were on the market this year in the next offseason). I would not be the slightest bit surprised if the Patriots actually value Dan Graham more to the team than they did Deion Branch and feel he is less replaceable.

Bruce: I have to admit, Graham has been my binky since he came into the league. I really like his game and the approach he takes to the game. He was a prolific pass-catcher in college, and probably expected to be a bigger part of the passing game in the pros, but he’s never complained about his role, and instead blocks with a vengeance. I really hope he is part of their plans for the future. Bringing in Dave Thomas and Garrett Mills this year gave me a little pause, but neither of them can bring to the team what Graham can. I think the Patriots realize what they have and will make the effort to sign him, but as we saw with Branch, you never quite know what the player’s camp is going to do in negotiations.

Scott: I wrote earlier this season that Graham would be gone, and despite his strong start, I still feel like he’ll be another whose value on the market will exceed what the Pats are willing to pay. People around the league have to know how good Graham is, because I imagine these killer blocks and underrated receiving skills pop off the film. The one caveat that may drive down his appeal is his durability; he’s never played more than 14 games in a season, and this week, he was again added to the injury list.

Let’s head back to the big prediction board for a look at last week’s picks. Bruce put up a 4-2 record (missing the Texans over Miami and the Redskins over the Jags) and he remains the top seed (18-6 overall) in our race to nowhere. I managed another weekend of flawless mediocrity with another 3-3 record (missing the farking Dolphins, Minnesota over the Bills, and the Ravens – blecch! – over the Chargers). I continue to slide inexoribly towards the inevitable .500 record (15-9), which just makes you wonder why you bother at all. Fat, drunk and .500 is no way to go through life, son. As for our friend Greg, he went 3-3, just like me (11-13; missing Miami, Minnesota and the Jaguars). Maybe we can both get healthy with a relatively easy slate of games this week. Buffalo at Chicago, Tennessee at Indy, NY Jets at Jacksonville, Pittsburgh at San Diego, Baltimore at Denver, and in the NFC, Dallas at Philly.

Bruce: Freakin’ Texans and Redskins. Grrr. I thought the Jags were better than this. I have their defense in my fantasy league and they killed me last week. This week, I like the Bears, Colts, Jaguars (though I’m a little scared here) and Chargers (the Steelers are reaching desperation time). I’ll take Denver to hand the Ravens their first loss of the season, and in Philly, the Cowboys will be swamped by the T.O. circus.

Scott: I’ll take Da Bears, Da Colts, Da Jets (upset special!), Da Steelers, Da Broncos, and because I always think the most annoying thing is going to happen, I’ll pick the Cowboys to upset the Eagles on Monday night. Terrell Owens will probably catch 15 balls for 187 yards and three touchdowns, and we’ll never get rid of him.

Greg: Chicago looks real good; they should take out the Bills. Indy could play one good series and beat the Titans. They will. Jacksonville takes out the Jets at home. San Diego continues the Steelers woes and hands them another loss. Denver beats Baltimore and Philly T.K.O.’s T.O. and the rest of Dallas.

Oooooooooo……it’s the AFC East Champion Miami Dolphins. Hide the children! What devastation shall be wrought on us?

Scott: You know, I think we should throw Matt Cassel, Bam Childress and Eric Alexander back at these guys. There’s no way the second-rate Dolphins beat the Patriots JV’s twice in a row. Pats 23-10.

Greg: The Dolphins have regressed. Their o-line stinks. Their QB is overrated and has never played well without Randy Moss. Their back isn’t a feature back and better suited to split carries with another good back, which they don’t have. And their defense, while good, isn’t dominant like in the old days. My point? The Patriots cruise. 30-17.

Bruce: The Dolphins defense will keep them in this one. I don’t think it will be a runaway, but I think the Patriots won’t be in danger that much throughout this one. I’ll say Patriots 27-13.

Greg, reach in the barrel here and pick out a postcard with the name of our latest Mediot of the Week.

Greg: Can I pick Michael Felger again? Not for anything in particular he said this week, but for his shrieking pronunciations in July, of all months, that the Patriots have no depth. Meanwhile, they beat a 3-0 team on their home turf without a starting cornerback, without a starting safety and without a starting right tackle by 25. That doesn’t indicate they actually do have some depth? I’d say it does. And Felger pushed the panic button on it way too early, as plenty of people said at the time.

Bruce: Gotta be Borges. I think we’ve been over this. Just amazing. The guy is so delusional and jaded that he’s throwing his reputation and talent away. We know he’s got the talent to be a great writer, but he’s making a mockery of his career. He’s the T.O. of sports writing.

Scott: Peter King says watch out Pats, because NOW Nick Saban is embarrassed. You saw how they decimated the mighty Titans after losing their home opener to the Bills, and then rolled on to Houston, where I’m sure they just crushed the Texans. I don’t really know, I haven’t checked the scores. But what I DO know is NOBODY circles the wagons like an embarrased Nick Saban, apparently. Stick to the Chris Simms updates, Pete.